December 2013 - January 2014


To Holland and back with van Gogh

By Gail Bell
Vincent van Gogh, The Night Cafe (1888). © Wikimedia Commons

Vincent van Gogh, The Night Cafe (1888). © Wikimedia Commons

In search of home

Between February 1888 and May 1889, Vincent van Gogh painted more than 200 canvases. Even for a fast worker, this was an astonishing quantity, considering the sketches and detailed letters he also turned out, as well as the physical energy involved in stitching himself into the local scene in Provence.

After two years in Paris, absorbing new techniques and freeing his palette from the dark, earthy colours employed in the early paintings of his native Holland, he’d suddenly left his brother’s apartment and taken the train south to Arles, where, he believed, the future of new art (and an improvement in his own health) lay. He wrote to a friend, “in the south, one’s senses get keener, one’s hand becomes more agile, one’s eye more alert, one’s brain clearer.”

The job of explaining van Gogh to the family back home fell to his younger brother Theo. “The young school of painting concentrates particularly on getting sunshine into their pictures,” he wrote even before the output from Arles began pouring in.

In Arles, yellows took over van Gogh’s canvases. Two of the paintings from this feverish period, The Night Cafe and Bedroom at Arles, reproductions of which I’ve carried with me from house to house over the years, say much to me about what the notion of a home means.

The first is almost the antithesis of home: an alien space dominated by clashing reds and greens, ruled by the figure of an unsmiling landlord who almost dares us to walk in. The Night Cafe has nothing of the welcoming charm we might want in a home, and this, perhaps, is one of its messages. This “rotten joint”, as the artist half-affectionately described it, was where he worked in the evenings by gaslight. There is a lot of yellow on the canvas but not “the high yellow note” the artist loaded onto his brush when he painted the sun that dominates the sky in The Sower or the bright warmth he injected into his Sunflowers. In the claustrophobic rendering of the night cafe, he chose the acid yellow of lemons. Van Gogh wrote to his brother, “I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, commit crimes. In short I have tried to express the powers of darkness in a low public-house … in an atmosphere of pale sulfur, like a devil’s furnace.”

Its very charmlessness is what draws me in. I can’t stop looking into its corners, up at the clock where it is past midnight, along its edges where bottles and glasses lie abandoned, through the doorway that hints at cheaply bought pleasures. I am drawn to the couple in the left-hand corner – a man seems to be making a move on a tired-looking woman – and to the men numbed by drink, sagging at their tables.

Versions of the night cafe have served my own need to be alone at times when the world crowds in. To be not at home, not available for a chat, free to experiment with more interesting versions of myself in the company of strangers, in a place where a nod suffices for politeness and my reflection in a mirror no longer urges me to straighten my hair or my back. A place, where, as my more interesting self, I can slip into a memory stream that pulls me backwards to my youth.

Growing up the eldest of five siblings in a three-bedroom house, I invented an early refuge from surveillance when I slid into the back seat of the family Holden and pressed all the door locks. Doubly cocooned by the garage, I did my homework on my lap, read my textbooks and savoured the quiet. Often I just sat, home but not at home, “me” and by some alchemy also “not me”. The seats in the old Holden were not unlike the seats in the diner booths I discovered later, the right kind of diner, the night cafe kind, where quiet weeping or unhinged mumbling or suspect transactions confined themselves to private islands.

Bedroom in Arles has another mood altogether. The yellow here is of “fresh butter”. Van Gogh wrote in a letter that “it’s just simply my bedroom, only here colour is to do everything … it is to be suggestive of rest or of sleep in general.”

As someone who has composed a bedroom in many different locations, I see something more than an exercise in complementary colours. I see a rendering of the centrality of home in our wandering lives. Home itself might have been sold, or simply left behind because it was time to go, but in our souls and imaginings and yearnings, home is a bed and a window, a table and chair, clothes on hooks, paintings or photographs, a door we can close or leave open, a mirror to keep an eye on our fitness for presentation.

In his first sketch of the bedroom, van Gogh drew a framed portrait of his mother above the bed. The following day he replaced his mother with a landscape. He was anticipating a visitor, one he greatly admired but knew to be unsentimental, the artist Paul Gauguin. In an unsent letter to Theo, van Gogh described painting canvases to decorate the walls, running down his finances on frames and extra furniture, even having gaslight installed so that the men could continue their work or read in the evenings. “These four days [of frantic preparation] I have lived mainly on 23 cups of coffee, with bread that I still have to pay for.”

Our sensitivities sharpen when an important friend is coming to stay. We suddenly see our rooms through the eyes of forensic investigators. We tidy and dust, hide evidence of our secret pleasures, worry about the bed linen, spend money on special foods, scrub hard surfaces that have defiantly collected grime just to show us up. Having let our guard down, we run around hiding the evidence.

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles (1889). © Wikimedia Commons

The bedroom in which I spent my early childhood nights was the largest of the three available and had originally been my parents’ room. My mother saw the solution to assigning bed space by putting the two boys in double bunks in the smallest room, herself and my father in the middle-sized room, and we three sisters in the front room, nominally spread between a double and a single bed jammed up close. Mothers, as van Gogh knew, preside in the matter of sleeping arrangements. The front room, being the largest, also had a full complement of wardrobes and storage chests, so that getting about usually meant forgetting the floor and travelling over the bouncy terrain of the beds. Sometimes, in memory, I’m back in that double bed, snuggled into my sister closest in age, aware that the youngest one has joined us and is pretending to be asleep.

In the main, I believe we are programmed to home, like pigeons. We head for home at the end of things: the end of the day, the journey, the bitter break-up, the disappointment, the incredible bit of luck, the small victories. We have news to bring. It has much to do with the constancy of the “mother” pattern we first recognised when we were discovering the world. Like the children we once were, we desire comfort and reassurance, to be told it’s not all our fault. We travel home to the forgiving mother figure (whoever she or he may be), the steady rock, the one who knew us before us became what we are. We navigate, sometimes long distances, sometimes in memory, in search of the old landmarks.

A long time ago, I married a Dutchman. After some years in a house in Australia, we moved to his native Friesland, a province in the north of Holland. In a shipping crate that had come halfway round the world I’d packed the possessions without which I could not live: my library of essential books, special fountain pens and bottles of ink, the kind of paper I like to write on, art prints, favourite bookmarks, the small buddhas and the glass cat that sit on my desk, my collection of glass rings, the many small Chinese boxes that serve no useful purpose. I brought my family with me in photo frames, as well as souvenirs from the dispensary, the mortars and pestles and stirring rods that defined my working life as a pharmacist. With these talismans I hoped to keep the otherness of rural life in a strange country at arm’s length, long enough to toughen up, learn the language and the codes, fit in and even flourish a little.

When Australian friends turned up after a year, I realised I’d changed. By then, I’d absorbed enough of my new home to reflect it back to the world. I had tales to tell, but there is only so much mileage in stories about being visited by the village church elders and told to wear Sunday clothes on the Sabbath, or my efforts to keep up with not one but two new languages when living among Frisian speakers who switched to Dutch only when it was required by officialdom.

How could I interest my old buddies in the niceties of storing a hundredweight of potatoes in the cellar, or explain why the front parlour was only used for formal visits (by church elders), or refer to the chamber pots they’d need at night because our only loo was in a distant corner of the vast empty cow barn?

The original Van Gogh Museum opened in Paulus Potterstraat, Amsterdam, in 1973, a few years before I became a Dutch resident. I went as often as I could get away from the farm, to do a bit of “gallery bashing”, as a friend who understood my isolation called it.

I took my parents there when they visited in 1980. We posed for photographs in front of the paintings: Bedroom in Arles, of course, and Fishing Boats at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the one my father liked. I bought them postcards to take home, exhausting them with my need to connect. “His paintings speak to me,” I told my father. It’s the sort of thing you say when what you really want to say can’t be said.

Van Gogh craved the companionship of the older, more worldly Gauguin. He wanted the yellow house in Arles to become a studio for two hardworking artists, a place in which creative sparks might catch fire. Instead, as the well-known story goes, their relationship went up in smoke and van Gogh did what he did to his ear. Gauguin fled back to Paris; van Gogh was carted off to hospital and kept there for two weeks under the prevailing Insane Act.

“I should like you to … refrain from speaking evil of our poor little yellow house,” he wrote afterwards to Gauguin, while reassuring him of his “deep and sincere friendship”.

I, too, do not want to leave a picture of the farm in Holland as a mud-brown version of van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters. It comes back to me in my dreams in the vivid colours of the deep green grass, the silver glint on the small canal that ran along one border, the blacks and whites of the cows, the bright pink hollyhocks leaning against the windows, and the plentiful yellows. It returns in words and sentences that float in from some mental vault to override my English with what seems to be a more pleasing locution. Welterusten for “sleep well”. Stralend for “radiant”. I left there feeling I could be at home anywhere in the world.

And leave I did. Personal circumstances, and a job at Guy’s Hospital, eventually led me to London. On an introduction from a friend in Australia, I made my way to Kilburn and  the third-floor flat of a family of artists. Dragging my luggage up the stairs, I wondered what these people would be like, and if they would like me, and if I could still cut it in society after so long away. An artist’s house, I soon discovered, is arranged on different organising principles from a provincial farmhouse. Sleeping arrangements, for one thing, were fluid. The sitting room, sacrosanct in my former life, was the milling point for visitors and residents excited by the latest exhibition. The bathroom doubled as a darkroom, and the kitchen stored more painting and drawing materials than food.

On my first night I lay in the bed of someone who was away, under a crimson velvet curtain that served for a spread, staring at the gallery of curiosities on display. Venetian masks, goblets, feather boas, books, paintbrushes, letters, exhibition posters, rocks, an inkwell, piles of clothing relegated to the floor, tasselled shoes holding pages open. The old sense of being cocooned and safe, this time in a genie’s cave, warmed me to my core. I slept like a teenager.

The works of a great artist such as van Gogh gain eternal life because we, the viewers in the gallery, read something of our own strivings for a higher purpose into what is, after all, paint on canvas. I turned 30 while I was living in the artists’ flat in Kilburn. In that year of keen senses and a clear brain and a lot of gallery bashing, I pinned postcards to the wall of the borrowed bedroom, and at night, by lamplight, I studied the high yellow notes of Arles. Then I moved on to the next home and the next and the one after that.

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

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